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Stalin’s Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky

This article is over 14 years, 9 months old
Chris Bambery looks at a new account of Leon Trotsky’s life and death, which was recently Radio 4’s Book of the Week
Issue 2161

At 4am on 24 May 1940 machine gun bullets tore through the bedroom where the exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky and his wife Natalia were sleeping.

By some miracle Trotsky, Natalia and their grandson Seva, who had been sleeping in the next bedroom, survived.

Mexican Communists, under the direction of the NKVD Russian secret police, carried out the attack.

Russian dictator Joseph Stalin and his police chief Beria had ordered a massive operation to kill Trotsky, who was the main opponent of their tyrannical rule.

This unsuccessful murder attempt is the starting point for Bertrand M Patenaude’s book Stalin’s Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky.

It has just been serialised on BBC Radio 4 as its Book of the Week. If you are looking for a good, real life detective investigation this summer I recommend it.

Revelations from the archives of the NKVD allow Patenaude to give a meticulous account of the painstaking operation to assassinate the “Old Man”, as Trotsky was called by his supporters.

Patenaude writes brilliantly about the politics of Mexico, the one country in the world in 1937 prepared to let Trotsky in. He has collected the reminiscences of Trotsky’s guards and staff.

The result catches the claustrophobia of the Blue House, the home of the painter Frida Kahlo, where Trotsky and his wife first lived, and then the fortified home at Avenida Viena in Mexico City’s suburbs.

The contrast between the meetings where Stalin and his police chief Beria order the assassination and the attempts of the cash-strapped Trotsky’s followers to protect the “Old Man” is skilfully brought out.

In the end, the NKVD understood that an individual assassin stood a better chance of success than a full-scale attack on Trotsky’s house.

On 20 August 1940 that assassin crashed an icepick into Trotsky’s cranium. The Old Man put up tremendous resistance to his attacker, but the damage was too severe. He died in hospital with Natalia at his side.

The book is honest about Trotsky’s failings, but you cannot read it

without identifying with Trotsky and his family, virtually all of whom Stalin hounded to the grave.

Yet Patenaude’s view of the October 1917 Russian Revolution in which Trotsky had been a central leader is hostile to everything the Old Man stood for in his fight with Stalin.

For Patenaude, it all went wrong when Trotsky joined the Bolshevik Party in the summer of 1917. He believes that the October Revolution was a “Bolshevik coup”, which set in train the creation of “the first totalitarian state”.

This ignores the fact that the revolution was carried through by a popular mobilisation of workers, peasants and soldiers desperate to take Russia out of the horrors of the First World War. The Bolsheviks were the only party in Russia offering that.

The revolution also brought freedoms to the oppressed and exploited. That’s why virtually every capitalist state sent troops to Russia to try and break the revolution.

Support for policies such as giving land to the peasants meant they failed.

But the destruction that ensued and the isolation of the young Soviet Union meant that the growing bureaucracy around Stalin could strangle the revolution.

Trotsky fought this group on the basis of the Bolshevik tradition and the policies of Vladimir Lenin, the party’s leader who died in 1924.


Trotsky’s defeat and exile were necessary to allow a full-scale counter-revolution at the end of the 1920s. This destroyed all the gains of 1917.

The most moving parts of Nemesis are those dealing with Trotsky, his family and his supporters.

In 1979 a middle-aged Russian émigré, fresh from Moscow, saw a poster in New York for a rally commemorating the 100th anniversary of Trotsky’s birth.

She was Trotsky and Natalia’s granddaughter, one they never knew they had. Her father Seryozha was executed in Siberia.

Yula, the granddaughter, kept her family history secret. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she was not interested in politics, but she wanted to find out about her grandfather.

Trotsky’s grandson Seva was allowed to visit Russia in 1988 in order to meet his half-sister Alexandria, who he’d not seen for six decades.

She was now dying of cancer. She had been released from a labour camp after Stalin’s death. Her mother, Trotsky’s first wife Alexandria Bronstein, died in the Gulag.

Seva said of the meeting, “it was a little like people from a shipwreck who meet safe and sound on the beach”.

Their lives had been blighted by Stalin for the simple crime of being related to his key opponent.

Stalin’s Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky by Bertrand M Patenaude is available for £20 from Booksmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to »

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